More than any other element, the greatest challenge in creating a modern musical is tone. We live in deeply cynical, content-saturated times, and penetrating through that psychic mess with the level of raw emotionality that a good musical demands—and doing so without yanking our critical minds out of the moment with a clichéd line or derivative song—is a feat that has only been achieved a few times in recent years.
In the case of Dear Evan Hansen, which opened at The Curran Thursday night, we have been gifted a show that is both fiercely authentic and contemporary, and it's filled with inspired, memorable music throughout. From Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, The Greatest Showman), the play is at turns intimate and sweeping—a profoundly relevant and moving musical that is bound to live on in tours, revivals, and eventually amateur productions for many years to come.
The house was full and the audience audibly excited for this fourth stop on the tour of this 2017 Tony winner for Best Musical, given all the buzz that it's had in New York — where it continues to play to sold-out houses at the Music Box Theatre. The ultra-contemporary set comprised of vertical projection panels by David Korins (with projections designed by Peter Nigrini) sets the tone with fast-scrolling flashes of text and emoji, and within minutes we've met the painfully awkward Evan (played with terrific naturalism by the brilliant Ben Levi Ross), his nervous mother Heidi (Jessica Phillips), and the Murphy family, including rebellious son Connor (Marrick Smith) and sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna), whom we quickly learn is the object of deep obsession for Evan. The mothers, Heidi and Cynthia (Christiane Noll), sing a brief duet about the challenges of parenting ("Anybody Have a Map?") before we are launched into one of the signature numbers of the piece, and the one that's had the most airplay since Ben Platt's Tony Awards performance, "Waving Through a Window."
Both of those opening songs feature the densely poetic and inspired lyrics Pasek and Paul have become known for. The mothers' duet includes lines like "I don't know if you can tell but this is me just pretending to know / so where's the map? I need a clue / because the scary truth is I'm flying blind and I'm making this up as I go." And "Waving Through a Window" has the grand, anthemic quality of several of Pasek and Paul's songs for The Greatest Showman, here establishing Evan as the lonely outsider that he is in his high school, and providing us with an earworm of an angsty teen anthem for the ages.
Phoebe Koyabe and Jared Goldsmith both do terrific comedic work in the supporting roles of high school students Alana and Jared, both as foils for Evan's intense introversion.
Without giving too much away about the story, which is unique both in its believability and its organic use of contemporary technology, let's just say that Evan's world becomes entwined with the Murphy family's, and yes he gets the girl (the gorgeous Act 2 song "Only Us" sung by Zoe and Evan deserves to be covered by pop diva stat), and even finds a surrogate father in Larry Murphy (played by the stoic and talented Aaron Lazar). Then everything goes to hell, and Evan's beleaguered mom is left to pick up the pieces. Phillips does stellar work with her final song, the very moving "So Big/So Small."
I'd be remiss not to mention the show's central theme song and Act I closer, "You Will Be Found." Like Evan's first song, it's an anthem about loneliness only this time with a hefty dose of optimism. The song coincides with Evan having his first public triumph, and as each of the other cast members join in, it crescendos into a choral piece of remarkable power — especially considering it's coming from just eight voices.
As Lazar said in a recent interview, "A show like this comes along… once every ten years." And with the exception of Hamilton, I'd have to agree that I haven't seen anything this memorable, this polished, and this emotionally effective in a very long time. But more significant even than the high quality of the score, the performances, and the brisk direction by Michael Greif, is the keen sense of authenticity and tone, much of which comes from the book by Steven Levenson. It's a story that transcends the angsty teen drama genre and conveys more than a couple universal emotions without ever being cloying or trite.
"I'd rather pretend I'm something better than these broken parts/ pretend I'm something other than this mess that I am," Evan sings in "Words Fail." But from this emotional mess of a boy springs a show that doesn't need to pretend at greatness. It crackles with truth and comforts us with some genuinely hopeful moments, but not before tearing us apart in the way of great tragedies. Let's just hope the inevitable glut of high school productions can do this complex show some justice.
// Dear Evan Hansen plays through December 30th at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St. (Union Square); tickets available at sfcurran.com.